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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Southern Tohoku

Southern Tohoku

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Southern Tohoku / Southern Tohoku

In winter the snow is deep. In the warm months the green is vibrant. When the sages and poets of old walked these northern regions. They were inspired by the beauty of the land and the warmth of the people. In spite of its harsh climate, this land has also been coveted and fought over by some of Japan's most daring and flamboyant warlords, and its old ports and castle towns are redolent of the contrasting cultures of samurai and merchant.

The Sleeping Cat and the Folkcraft Potter

Nikko to Mashiko

You probably have heard of the three monkeys: "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." But what about the "sleeping cat"? The original three monkeys and the equally famous cat are to be found at the Toshogu Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Nikko. They form part of the beautifully expressive carvings over the entryways to some of the shrine halls. Some call the Nikko Toshogu gaudy; others a pinnacle of design. Ostentatious it may be, but no one is left uninspired by the beauty and craftsmanship of its buildings. Just two hours from Tokyo in deep forests, the Toshogu Shrine was built as the awesome mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867), and is now one of Japan's most rewarding tourist destinations. In addition to the amazing halls and enclosures of the shrine, there is a temple and lovely garden with a pondside teahouse and a museum. Nikko has been attracting foreign visitors since the turn of the twentieth century and offers one of Japan's classic Western-style hotels, the genteel Kanaya, whose splendid carved interiors are in keeping with the famous shrine. But for the more adventurous, may we suggest traveling a little deeper into the mountains to the hot springs of Nasu and Shiobara. Even the emperor and empress have a holiday retreat here. After perhaps spending some time browsing in the craft shops of Nasu's leafy resort town, head for a riverside four-story wooden inn along the Shiobara Ravine, or hike to somewhere more rustic, like Kita Onsen, which provides hot-spring fun for the whole family, even a spa-water swimming pool. Are you interested in pottery? In this prefecture of Tochigi you will also find Mashiko, home to the late and great Shoji Hamada's famous kiln, which is now an inspiring and beautifully cared-for museum complex, plus scores of shops in Mashiko town that specialize in the folkcraft-style pottery he inspired.

Samurai and Storehouses

Bandai-Asahi to Aizu-Wakamatsu

As the road winds north, the verdure deepens, and anticipation builds for the delights of Japan's nature-filled northern frontier. Hikers might like to head straight for the trails of Bandai-Asahi National Park with lovely Lake Inawashiro-ko. But the cultural center of Fukushima is the former castle town of Aizu-Wakamatsu. In this atmospheric provincial city, old shops, sake (rice wine) distilleries, miso (soy bean paste) and soy sauce makers, lacquerware, and bamboo crafts workshops advertise themselves dramatically with black-and-white noren shop curtains. But the city also has a famous story to tell: that of the "White Tigers," a tragic band of 19 teenage samurai who committed ritual suicide in 1868 when they mistakenly thought their lord's castle had fallen. In Aizu-Wakamatsu, see the reconstructed Tsuruga Castle as well as Mt. Iimori-yama, the site of the young tigers' deaths. Warrior culture is prominent in Aizu, and fascinating glimpses into the samurai way of life can be seen at several places, including the Buke-Yashiki (samurai residences), a replica of the residence of a high-ranking samurai that even has a working rice mill. There is also Oyakuen, "garden of medicinal plants," which is the former villa of an Aizu lord, containing a masterfully designed stroll garden with tea arbors and a large plot of Chinese herbs. People often combine a tour of Aizu with a trip to neighboring Kitakata to see some examples of the fireproof kura storehouse architecture, for which this country town is famous. Start your exploration at Kai-honke Kurazashiki (museum), one of the more outstanding examples, and follow the walking map from there.

A Warlord's Legacy and the Place Where Snow Monsters Grow

Yonezawa and Yamagata

Now the road heads further north -- to Yonezawa -- another city with a romantic history, this time associated with one of Japan's great warlords of the 1500s, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578), who secured a vast territory along the Sea of Japan Coast. But when his descendants were defeated they found themselves confined to the impoverished domain of Yonezawa. Later, the innovative and altruistic 10th lord of Yonezawa, Uesugi Yozan, raised poor Yonezawa's fortunes from nothing, by having farmers plant such cash crops as safflower, which supplied valuable red dyes, and developing silk, textile and pottery industries. He made the samurai families work, and became himself a fine example of frugality. Family treasures of the Uesugi clan can be seen at such places as the Uesugi Kinenkan Museum-- which also serves interesting traditional meals in a stately Meiji Era Uesugi family villa -- and the Uesugi Jinja Shrine in Keisho-den, where a famous folding screen by master artist Kano Eitoku can be viewed. Picturesque Shirabu Onsen on the outskirts of Yonezawa is the place to head for some hot-spring indulgence -- especially after a day on the nearby ski slopes. Try one of the handsome thatched-roof inns such as Nishi-ya, Naka-ya or Higashi-ya. Serious skiers can also find spectacular snow country at Zao, where the snow sculpts the trees into "snow monsters." Yamagata, the capital of Yamagata Prefecture, is a little further north, and here you should not miss Yamadera, a mountain monastery with buildings perched dramatically on rocky outcrops. You may have to pull yourself up on chains to see some of them, an exercise that can be thrilling in the snow.

To a Castle Town Via a Holy Mountain

Dewa Sanzan, Tsuruoka and Sakata

Should you choose to travel to Tsuruoka on the Sea of Japan Coast from Yamagata, you will go via one of the most splendid scenic drives in Japan. The countryside here is picturesque all year round, but it is especially spectacular in early spring when snow-capped mountains, cherry blossoms and new green shoots all view for attention. On the way, take a detour at Asahimura Village to see the Churenji Temple, which has a mummified holy man as one of its objects of worship. And from Asahimura Village you are close to the three holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan, where the mysterious Yamabushi mountain ascetics practice their mixture of Buddhism, Shinto and magic. Try climbing the grand two-kilometer-long promenade lined with giant cedars leading to the shrine on one of the holy mountains, Mt. Haguro. Once over on the coast in Tsuruoka, the Chido Hakubutsukan museum pays homage to the rich legacies of traditional agricultural practices in this area, with a superlative collection of fishing and farming tools and folkcraft. A perfectly preserved example of the all but extinct kabuto (helmet)-style thatch farmhouses that used to dot this area, is also preserved in the grounds. Further up the coast, the once thriving commercial port of Sakata has old rice warehouses (the buildings and streets appeared in the famous Japanese TV drama "Oshin"). Try lifting some of the rice bales that even women carried in Edo days. And just outside the town, a marvelous museum pays tribute to late photographer Ken Domon (1909-1990), who took stunning photographs of a Japan that no longer exists.